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What Twitter Won't Tell You About the Election

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, February 8 2012

A new study released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press on Tuesday offers the opportunity to get real about what the political conversation on Twitter and Facebook can — or can't — tell you about the progression of the 2012 political campaign.

Pew has found that even among users of Twitter and Facebook, a paltry percentage of people use social networks to get news about politics: Only 24 percent of Twitter users in the sample and 25 percent of Facebook users said they "sometimes" got campaign news through that network, while a full 40 percent of Twitter users in the sample and 46 percent of Facebook users reported "never" getting campaign news through the network. Over half of the 1,507 respondents included in the survey results used some social network; fewer than 150 respondents reported using Twitter. Only 11 percent of respondents aged 18-29 reported getting regular campaign news from Facebook and 4 percent of that group had the same to say about Twitter; older respondents report getting even less news in this way.

In short: Hardly anyone who was on Twitter in early January used it to regularly have political conversations. This offers a possible explanation for why mining social media data for information about the "political zeitgeist" so closely follows the conventional wisdom of the moment — there are so few people on Twitter talking about politics on a regular basis that I would venture to guess that many of them are the same folks inventing that wisdom, on one side of a reporter's notebook or the other. That may change as the campaign swings from primary season to the general election; it might not. We'll have to wait and see.

Far more of those surveyed found their information through cable news. Among people who did get their news online, more respondents — 24 percent — said they looked first to CNN.com. Meanwhile, seven in ten voters, 72 percent, say they have seen or heard campaign commercials, per Pew.

In 2008, Brian Stelter quoted a market researcher saying that the stance of one college student was, "If the news is that important, it will find me." The Pew results indicate that in politics, if any news is finding Americans online at all right now, it must be very important indeed.

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